George Washington at the 76

Am I the only one who thinks this is funny?

On Saturday, on my way back from Ellensburg, I stopped off in George to buy a quart of milk. George is 5 miles south of my camper, and despite the fact that I’d driven past the town a half dozen times, I’d never stopped there.

The cleanest looking place in town to buy milk was the 76 gas station. I pulled in and parked. That’s when I spotted the bronze bust of George Washington. Moments later, I realized I was in George, Washington. (Duh-uh.) And then I realized that the 76 (as in 1776) sign was right behind George’s head.

So I took the photo.

George in Washington

Am I the only one who thinks this whole thing is funny?

More Stupid eBay Buyers

Proof (again) that many people who buy on eBay are idiots.

A few months back, I speculated that eBay was for suckers when I reported on the condition of a “mint” condition lens I’d bought at almost retail and an auction for another lens that I passed on when the bid went more than $100 higher than the selling price on Amazon.com.

What “Mint” Really Means

According to my Mac OS X Dictionary widget, mint, when used as an adjective, means “in pristine condition; as new.” If that’s the case, then why is the term “mint,” when used on eBay, always followed up with additional describing words and phrases like “It is in mint condition, no scratches, no dust and no marks”?

Hello? Mint means mint. Like new. New items don’t have scratches or dust.

Unless, of course, you’re dealing with an eBay item.

The lens I bought that was in “mint” condition looked as if it had been on a shelf for two years. Yes, some of the dust had been wiped off, but there was enough in the cracks and crevices to tell the tale. And there was the tiniest of scratches on the lens closest to the camera body. That’s not mint.

And my husband, who recently decided that the low profile wheels that came with his used AMG weren’t quite right for Wickenburg’s dirt roads, replaced them with “mint” condition stock wheels. In the seller’s world, “mint” is an adjective that can be applied to tire rims that have obviously been scraped along a curb. No amount of polishing will get those scratches out. My husband’s good deal wasn’t such a good deal after all.

I try to use words carefully. Because of that, I would never apply the word “mint” to any item that has been used in any way. Unfortunately, I’m one of the few people who take the meaning of words like “mint” seriously.

The Price Thing Still Cracks Me Up

The other day, I bought another lens from Amazon.com — but not before I started “watching” an auction for a “4-month old,” “mint” condition lens on eBay. The auction ended a little while ago and the lens sold for $454. Add $19.95 shipping and the final price was just $5 less than I paid Amazon for a brand new lens.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s worth the extra $5 to get something brand new in a box, shipped by a reputable company than to get suckered in by yet another eBay seller offering “mint” merchandise that isn’t.

So the question is, don’t these eBay buyers do their homework? Don’t they realize that they can buy brand new items for less than they’re paying for [often] misrepresented used items?

Or does the excitement of the auction process get them to bid stupidly?

POV.1 Progress

I’ll get the hang of it — one of these days.

I’ve now had my new POV.1 video camera for just over a week. And I’m not too pleased with my ability to operate it yet.

Tests Runs Okay

POV.1 CameraI made a few test runs with the camera.

The first consisted of me walking around the downstairs of my house, holding the camera in my hand and narrating what I saw. This was mainly a test of the controls and sound capabilities. It produced some predictably boring yet perfectly fine quality video. So far, so good.

Next, I attached the camera to a hat and had it running when I went down to feed the horses one evening. More narration, but I was limited to where the camera pointed because it was attached to my hat and the monitor was in my pocket. I couldn’t see what the camera was really pointing at. It turned out, it wasn’t pointing at what it should have been for about 90% of the video. So while the sound test worked fine — you could certainly hear my heavy breathing as I walked back up the hill — the video was not a keeper.

Next, I decided to test the setup in the helicopter. Because running the helicopter is not what a budget-conscious individual would do unnecessarily, I wanted my test to test all systems: the camera mount, video quality, and sound. Sound was the tricky part. I couldn’t just let the mic pick up cockpit sound because that was mostly helicopter engine and rotor noise. Instead, I had to figure out a way to get just the sound I wanted — intercom and radio sounds — directly into the POV.1’s recorder.

Lapel MicThe solution was to use a tiny powered lapel mic (similar to the one shown here) that I happened to have for a cassette recorder. The mic’s pickup was small enough to fit inside my headset ear cup, dangling right over my ear. I secured it in there with a clip. Any sound that got to my ear would get to the recorder. And the Bose Generation X headset’s active noise cancellation would filter out much of the sound of the helicopter running.

[A side note here: a more permanent solution would be to get an avionics guy to install an audio out jack. I already have an audio in jack, which is standard on Robinson helicopters, and allows me to listen to my iPod while I fly. An audio out would make it possible for me (or a passenger) to connect a video camera to the helicopter’s intercom system.]

I mounted the camera on the bar between the two front seats, using a mount I’d bought a year or two ago for a regular digital video camera. (That experiment had not gone well; the camera couldn’t compensate for the helicopter’s vibrations.) Then I went flying with Ed, my mechanic. We took a 14-minute flight around Vulture Peak, down to Vulture Mine, and back to the airport. Ed held the recorder unit while I flew. I used Viddler to post an edited-down version of the video. It wasn’t bad at all.

In fact, I thought I was ready for “prime time.”

Real Life Trials

My next for-hire flight was the next day. I was taking a dad, his birthday-boy son, and his son’s friend on a 50-minute flight to see the ghost towns and mines in the Wickenburg area. I figured I’d video the flight, then put the video on a DVD for the dad and his son.

[Another note here: That day, as I waited for my passengers, I met a pilot from Oregon who typically flies with three cameras on his plane. He had his laptop with him and showed me some of the video, which he’d set to music. It wasn’t very exciting stuff — not for a fellow pilot, anyway — but he said that his non-pilot friends love it. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.]

I was all set up as I had been the day before. As the helicopter warmed up, I started the recorder and placed it back on the space between the two back seats so it would be out of the way. I then did the flight. When we returned and shut down, I was surprised to see that the recorder was turned off. I figured it had run out of space on the SD card. But when I brought it inside, I was embarrassed to see that it had only recorded 41 seconds of video. The power button must have been hit after I put it down.

Dang! No video for my clients.

Anxious to get some real video to send them, Mike and I went out again with Mike’s mom. This time, I turned the camera on and locked its controls to prevent an accidentally pushed button from shutting it off.

I managed to capture 80+ minutes of video and sound. The only problem was, Mike’s mom’s profile or hands or shoulders are in every shot. In attempting to capture what was out the window in front of her, I managed to capture a bit too much of her. And 80+ minutes of partially blocked views, much of which are of boring open desert, really isn’t very interesting to anyone. Here’s a tiny bit I extracted and set to music.

On Wednesday, I took another client “heli shopping” down in Scottsdale. She’s a much smaller woman and I adjusted the camera a bit to take in more of the panel and less of her. But I also made the fatal error of using the camera’s “loop” mode to avoid capturing lots of boring stuff. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand how loop mode really worked, so when I thought I was turning it on and tagging the video, I was really turning it off. I didn’t capture any video at all.

Sheesh. Am I a loser or what?

Today’s Plan

Clamp1For today’s flight to Sky Harbor, I made some changes to the mounting setup. I’d ordered a special mounting clamp from the V.I.O. people and it arrived on Wednesday afternoon. It would give me more flexibility in where I could mount the camera.

There are two places I had in mind. The first was inside the cockpit bubble, at the front passenger’s feet. There’s a ridge there at the very bottom of the bubble and I’m pretty sure I can use the clamp and the 12-in. flexible mount I also bought to mount the camera inside, pointing out. The drawback of that location, of course, is glare. An additional drawback is the position of the recorder box and the difficulties I’d have attaching audio to it. (I can’t have any wires hanging loose around the critical areas near my flight controls.)

POV Camera on VentThe second place I had in mind was where I actually attached it: on the vent opening for the pilot’s door. This mount, which is shown here in the photos I took with my Treo yesterday, has the camera head outside, pointing slightly to the right and slightly down. The rest of the unit is inside, fastened to the helicopter’s airframe. I have all wires securely attached to various things that’ll keep them away from my controls. And I wrapped the camera and mount with red electrical tape, which is somewhat elastic and easier to remove than duct tape. I showed the setup to Ed and he agreed that the camera was not likely to come loose during flight.

Today will be an important test. If I can get the camera to work well from this position and not screw up using the controls, I’ll have some really interesting video. And if the mount and tape hold properly, it might be a good location for future installations.

To Las Vegas on Sunday

We’ll be flying to Las Vegas on Sunday. My planned route will take us over some very boring desert to Lake Havasu City. From there, we’ll fly up the Colorado River, past Topock, Bullhead City and Laughlin, Lake Mohave, Black Canyon, the Boulder Dam, and Lake Mead before turning west and flying right down Tropicana Boulevard to McCarran Airport. It’s one of my favorite flights and I’m eager to get the “good parts” on video.

So cross your fingers for me. I need to get some good shots soon.

POV.1

I got a new “toy” today — a POV.1 video camera. Here’s some info about it. Try to ignore Alex the Bird carrying on in the background.

Getting Wide

I play around with my new fisheye lens.

With my helicopter in the shop for some routine maintenance — can you believe I flew 100 hours in the past three months? — Mike and I decided to spend the weekend at our vacation place at Howard Mesa. The shed needed to be winterized and Mike wanted to replace the PVC plumbing (which cracked twice last winter) with real copper pipes.

When I wasn’t holding pipes so Mike could solder them (or driving down to Williams to pick up the fitting he’d forgotten to buy), I played. I’d brought along my Nikon D80 and the two new wide angle lenses I bought for it, including the 10.5mm fisheye (equivalent to a 16mm lens on a 35mm camera). I’d gotten the fisheye lens last week and didn’t have time to try it out.

A fisheye lens offers a 180° view of whatever you point it at. This introduces all kinds of distortions into the image. It also poses special challenges to the photographer, not the least of which is to keep herself out of the photos.

I played with it a tiny bit at home, where I got confirmation of what the lens’s instruction booklet said: the built-in flash would cause vignetting.

Mike Fixes the FurnaceSo when I tried it in the shed last night, I turned the flash off. I held the camera steady for the 1/4 second shutter speed that captured this image, which shows my husband, Mike, taking a quick drink before trying to fix the furnace. In the lower part of the photo, you can see my knees (clad in my wild chili pepper pants) and the sofa I sat on. Jack the Dog was sitting between my legs, watching Mike. The shot shows 90% of the shed’s main room.

(Mike was not successful fixing the furnace last night. It got down to 55°F in the shed. In the morning, he took the darn thing apart and pulled a mouse nest out of its innards. It now works fine.)

In the morning, I went out to photograph the horses. We’d brought them with us, primarily because it’s easier to bring them along than to find someone to feed them while we’re away. It got down into the low 40s last night, but they have thick winter coats. (In fact, they feel quite cuddly and very huggable.) At about 9 AM, they were standing together in the sun, in a spot out of the mesa’s incessant wind. Jake, who is about 25, had led Cherokee to the spot. Cherokee probably didn’t know why they were standing there, but he always follows Jake’s lead. Occasionally, he’d nibble on some of the dried grass that grew in clumps all around him.

Jake and Cherokee getting wideI brought out two apple pieces, which was a bad idea. As soon as they realized I had food, they wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept nosing my camera bag and shirt and it was all I could do to keep the camera out of their reach. But finally they realized that I wasn’t an apple tree and left me alone. Then it got tough to photograph them. They wouldn’t stand still. I managed to capture this shot of Jake with Cherokee in the background.

This was a good experiment. First, the challenge was to keep my shadow out of the photo. I couldn’t shoot with the sun at my back, like I normally would. My long shadow would have made it into the photo. I had to shoot at about a 90° angle to the sun. You can see the horses’ long shadows. I think the shadow in the lower left corner might be part of mine.

Also, from this shot you’d think I was standing quite a distance from Jake. I wasn’t. He was about a foot away. And Cherokee couldn’t have been more than 2 feet from him. The lens really exaggerates distances.

And check out the horizon. It should be flat. But the closer a straight line is to the edge of the image, the more curved it is. So a relatively flat horizon becomes an exaggerated curve. Kind of cool, no?

The next thing I tried was a duplicate of one of the shots you might see among the images that appear in the Header of this site: a dead tree with my windsock in the background.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis first shot was taken from about 2 feet from one end of the log. There’s not much curvature at all. And yes, that’s the sun. With the fisheye lens, it’s hard to keep the sun out of photos.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis second shot was taken about a foot and a half from the middle of the log. It’s a bad exposure; I’m not quite sure what I did wrong here. Still not much curvature.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis third shot was taken 6 to 12 inches from the end of the log. I focused on the log, but because there was so much light, there’s a decent amount of depth of field. You can really see the curvature of the horizon, but can still clearly identify the horses and windsock.

Okay, so it’s not art. But it is interesting. And it’s helping me to learn how this lens “sees” my subjects.

This evening I’ll do some panoramas of the western sky right after sunset. It was outrageously beautiful last night when we arrived up here. I’m also hoping to do a long exposure of the night sky, which should be star-filled. (No clouds in sight again today.) Tomorrow, I might go down to the local “four corners” intersection and do some 360° panoramas of the view from there.

Comments? Tips? Use the Comments link or form for this post to share them.

Smile!

I “rediscover” photography as a serious hobby.

I’ve been interested in photography since my college days — perhaps because I dated an aspiring photographer back then — and have always had some kind of decent single lens reflex (SLR) camera. Early on, it was an Olympus OM-10 followed by an Olympus OM-2. Then Mike traded those in with some cash to get me a Nikon 6006. I signed up for an Arizona Highways photo excursion to Havasu Falls in 2004 and bought another 6006 and two lenses on eBay so I could have the flexibility of working with two kinds of film at the same time.

Yes, I did say film. Our house has boxes of prints and negatives and slides hiding in various closets and cabinets. It’s rather depressing when I think of all the money I spent on the hobby yet have no photos hanging on my walls to show for it.

Canon Powershot SD500 7.1MP Digital Elph Camera with 3x Optical ZoomBack in the late 1990s, I started buying digital cameras. I won’t bore you with a laundry list. Let’s just say that I stepped up with technology and, for the past six or so years, have always had a digital point-and-shoot in my purse. The current purse model is a 7.1 megapixel Canon PowerShot 500, which is now two years old.

Nikon D80 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera Kit with 18-55mm ED II AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor LensBut the quality of these point-and-shoot cameras was never as good as I wanted. And when we decided to take a well-deserved vacation in Alaska this past summer, I wanted a decent camera to record the images digitally. So I splurged and bought a Nikon D80, which would work with the three Nikon auto focus lenses I already had in my collection.

Only an SLR can give you the tools you need to get serious about photography. The camera, as you can imagine, gives me control over shutter speed, aperture, white balance, focus — everything! If I screw up a photo, I can’t blame it on the camera. It’s definitely my fault.

So the challenge is to learn to use this great tool to take great photos.

Practice Makes Perfect

The photos from our Alaska trip were only as good as the scenery. Fortunately, the scenery was very good. But my ability to capture good images was somewhat limited. I definitely need practice.

So I’ve been bringing my camera along on various trips and, when I have time, I’ve been snapping photos, experimenting with settings and light and the other things that make photography a challenge.

Hopi HouseWhen I get back to my office, I import all the images into iPhoto. I review each one and ruthlessly delete the ones that just don’t measure up because of problems with focus, exposure, or composition. Then I review the ones that remain and try to learn from them. Sometimes I fiddle with them in Photoshop, but I admit I don’t know enough about Photoshop to get the most of it. (Need to learn that, too.) And if there’s an image I like a lot, I put it on RedBubble so I can get cards or prints made. I’ve had two framed prints made in the past few months; it’s nice to see my own photos on the wall in my house.

The Right Lenses

I’ve also been investing in lenses. I now have five Nikon lenses in my collection:

  • Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens. This is the lens that came with my first Nikon 6006 camera. In other words, it’s a film camera lens. My understanding is that it’s equivalent to a 75mm lens on my digital SLR.
  • Nikon AF Nikkor 28-85mm f3.5-f4.5 zoom lens. This is the lens I use most often. Very flexible focal length. I bought it for the Nikon 6006, so I assume the digital SLR focal length is closer to 42-128mm.
  • Nikon AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4-f5.6 zoom lens. I bought this for the Nikon 6006 as my “long lens.” It’s even longer on the digital: 105-315mm, if I’m calculating that right.
  • Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f3.5-f5.6 G ED zoom lens. This is the lens I bought on eBay a few weeks ago. I’m amazed by its light, rather junky feel. Interestingly, this is the only lens I have that’s made in Thailand; all of the others are made in Japan. This may become my multi-purpose lens; right now its too soon to tell.
  • Fisheye Lens ExampleNikon DX AF Fisheye Nikkor 10.5mm f2.8 G ED lens. I’ve always wanted a fisheye lens and now I have one. It arrived yesterday afternoon. I wasted no time fitting it to my camera. The early images are nothing more than samples — click, click, click with a digital camera for immediate gratification. (This image of a vase of flowers on my kitchen table is a good example; it also shows the limitations of the built-in flash with the lens.) I think I’m going to have a lot of fun with this lens. Can’t wait to take it flying and out on the trail.

The only other lens I’d like to add to my collection is a very long lens — 300+ mm zoom. But I really don’t need one and can’t afford to buy a good quality one. So I’ll wait and see how I do with these.

Staying Interested

I’ll share some of my better photos and the stories behind them here, as I’ve been doing for some time now. I’m really not a very good photographer, but as I’ve said elsewhere, if you take enough photos, something has to be decent. And I know I’m not a bad photographer.

I’m just hoping I don’t get bored with photography (again) and put all this equipment aside to get obsolete.

Anyone want to buy a Nikon 6006 SLR?

Is eBay for Suckers?

I think it’s for people too lazy to do their homework.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’ve been spending a lot of time with photographers lately in some of the most outstanding scenic areas of Arizona. I’ve had a lot of downtime on these trips, waiting for passengers, etc. I brought along my Nikon D80 camera with the 3 lenses I used to use on my old film cameras, a pair of Nikon 6006s. (I still have those camera bodies in excellent condition. They’re great for anyone interested in working with film. Make me an offer.)

Again, I’m not a great photographer, but I do get lucky once in a while. It’s hard to come away without any good photos when you’re in a beautiful place and have a camera capable of storing 300+ 10-megapixel images on a single card. Digital cameras give us the luxury of experimentation without cost. We can try different lenses and different aperture or shutter speed settings. We can shoot a dozen photos of the same thing at different times of the day. Something has to come out okay or even — dare I say it? — good.

Wide Angle ExampleA lot of the photographers I’ve been working with — Mike Reyfman and Jon Davison come to mind — do a lot of work with wide angle lenses. The photos look great, the curvature gives the images a certain character. And Jon even showed me how to remove the curvature when it isn’t wanted (although I admit I forgot how; I’ll have to research that again in Photoshop documentation).

Wide Angle ExampleAlthough lens collection includes a 28-85 mm zoom lens, I only recently discovered that a 28 mm lens for a film camera doesn’t give you a 28 mm focal length on a digital camera. There’s a conversion factor, which I looked up for my camera: 1.5. That means the focal length of my lens is 1.5 times whatever the lens is labeled. So, for example, a 28 mm lens is resulting in a 42 mm focal length. (Please, someone, correct me if I’m getting this wrong. This is my understanding and I’m not an optics expert.)

This explains why I’m not getting the curvature effect I was looking for with my “wide angle” lens.

Wide Angle ExampleSo I did some research and found that Nikon makes a 18-55 mm lens. I saw the retail price and decided to see if I could do better on eBay. I did. I bought a used lens in pretty good (but not “mint,” as advertised) condition on eBay for $81 including shipping. I got to play with it on Sunday when we were goofing off at the local airport. The photos you see with this post are examples. I didn’t have much to work with in the way of subject matter, so I took a few shots of my car (parked in front of my hangar) and a cool little airplane sitting out on the ramp.

But, as I expected, this curvature wasn’t enough. I wanted more. It looked like I’d have to go with a fisheye lens, which I’d already been researching and bidding on on eBay. I kept losing the auctions. The lenses were going for $700+ and one used one slipped out of my grasp for $620. My top bid was in the low $500s, and even that was more money than I wanted to spend.

Then there’s the condition of the lens that arrived on Saturday. The seller said it was used, but also said it was in “mint” condition. In my mind, “mint” condition means perfect. It doesn’t mean dusty, like it’s been sitting on a shelf for half a year. It doesn’t mean accompanied by a skylight filter that has dust on both sides. And it certainly doesn’t mean dust on either end of the lens. This was not mint. I couldn’t complain because I thought I’d gotten a good deal, but I wasn’t about to spend $700 on another lens and have it arrive in the same condition. For that kind of money, I wanted a brand new lens in a box.

I lost my most recent bid on a 10.5 mm lens on eBay. Just for the hell of it, I decided to check Amazon.com. And guess what? They had the same lens, brand new in a box from a camera dealer, for $589 with free shipping.

So what the hell was I doing on eBay?

I bought the lens on Amazon.com.

I also learned a few valuable lessons here:

  • eBay should be the discount seller of last resort when buying an expensive item.
  • Buy used only when condition is not vitally important. (To me, it’s vital that photographic equipment be in pristine condition.)
  • Do your homework on an item’s pricing in at least four other places before placing any eBay bids.
  • And of course, the rule we should all know: don’t get auction fever when bidding on eBay.

The good news of all this is that I still have about $300 left from some “found money.” (I unexpectedly sold some post-level advertising on this site, resulting in a little windfall of mad money.) And when the new lens arrives, I know it’ll really be in “mint” condition.